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"Hidden Figures" movie about sane mathematicians

  1. Jan 15, 2017 #1
    (NOTE: Not sure if this shouldn't be in "General Discussion"? The movie is fiction, but it's based on a true story about NASA & the first manned space launches.)

    Some math guy in another thread (I think it was "How smart is Tony Stark?") was complaining that mathematicians are usually portrayed in movies as being crazy in one way or another - never normal, decent human beings.

    I just saw the "feel good science movie" Hidden Figures and enjoyed it a lot. The three protagonists are definitely normal human beings, not crazy; just very talented. And they are mathematicians.

    Here's a Smithsonian article about the nonfiction book that led to the movie: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/histo...win-wars-and-send-astronauts-space-180960393/

    From the lead to the article:

    As America stood on the brink of a Second World War, the push for aeronautical advancement grew ever greater, spurring an insatiable demand for mathematicians. Women were the solution. Ushered into the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1935 to shoulder the burden of number crunching, they acted as human computers, freeing the engineers of hand calculations in the decades before the digital age. Sharp and successful, the female population at Langley skyrocketed.

    Many of these “computers” are finally getting their due, but conspicuously missing [until now] from this story of female achievement are the efforts contributed by courageous, African-American women. Called the West Computers, after the area to which they were relegated, they helped blaze a trail for mathematicians and engineers of all races and genders to follow.

    The West Computers were at the heart of the center’s advancements. They worked through equations that described every function of the plane, running the numbers often with no sense of the greater mission of the project. They contributed to the ever-changing design of a menagerie of wartime flying machines, making them faster, safer, more aerodynamic. Eventually their stellar work allowed some to leave the computing pool for specific projects—Christine Darden worked to advance supersonic flight, Katherine Johnson calculated the trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions. NASA dissolved the remaining few human computers in the 1970s as the technological advances made their roles obsolete.​

  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 15, 2017 #2
    Saw it last night, loved it.
  4. Jan 15, 2017 #3
    I am looking forward to seeing it. In the 1980's, a (senior) woman colleague of mine did analysis as a math aid (i.e calculator) in a lab (but not NASA) when John Glenn made his flight into space in 1962 She told me some interesting stories about the computing power, and the equipment in those days, so I feel some connection to the story.
  5. Jan 16, 2017 #4


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    Part of the reason for female "computers" is that the tradition started off back in WWII, due to males being drafted, most of the human "computers" were women, originally using mechanical calculators. A team of six women "programmed" the ENIAC:


    One the more well know early female programmers was Grace Hopper.


    The movie had a few technical flaws, but the story was good, and it will make people aware of the "west area computers".


    Another interesting thing was seeing those electric mechanical calculators. Electricity was mainly used to drive a motor, the rest of the calculators were mechanical devices. I'm an old guy and my high school acquired a few of these old mechanical calculators in addition to an IBM 1130, back in 1968.



    There seemed to be some technical flaws apparently to make the movie more interesting (minor spoilers):

    The huge sets of equations on the chalk boards didn't seem right. By the time of the Mercury missile, probably Runge Kutta or something similar would be used, along with relatively simple equations to calculate drag based on altitude (air density) and velocity, plus thrust from the rocket's engine. Once out of the atmosphere, Kepler's laws (of planetary motion) would apply, simplifying the equations needed for Runge Kutta or something similar. The human "computers" were probably spending most of their time doing Runge Kutta type calculations on the electro-mechanical calculators, one delta time step at a time. Multiple "computers" would do the same calculations to verify the results. The IBM computer in the movie would mostly be doing the same Runge Kutta type calculations, only much faster. One advantage of this is that the IBM results could be split up into multiple starting and ending times, allowing the human computers split up the work to verify the segments in parallel. One key issue was re-entry speed and angle, but since this started from space, Kepler's laws would still apply. Being a capsule where the entire bottom was a heat shield, there was probably more margin for error than the Space Shuttle.

    What was made out to be a key insight in the movie was when the orbit would be changed from elliptical to parabolical. Maybe the term parabolical just meant the capsule's elliptical orbit would change to intercept the atmosphere, but technically a parabolic path is an escape velocity path. As already mentioned, while still in space, setting up the reentry path would be based on Kepler's laws, so not really different than any in space orbital path projections. I wonder if the team was aware of the Oberth impulse effect (use thrust when capsule is at maximum speed for most efficient use of fuel).
    Last edited: Jan 16, 2017
  6. Jan 21, 2017 #5
    I am writing to this post a second time. I saw the movie Friday. I thought it was the best movie I have seen in about 25 years, and the only one that I will probably see again. I did see a one or two technical misconceptions. I stayed after the credits to see who the movie had 7 technical advisors and 1 "mathematics" advisors, who did not catch them. It may also be the misconceptions were in the book the film was based on, so that to be true to the book they were not corrected. I do feel these flaws were minor points, that in no way detract from the movie.

    It is rare these days to see a movie that has no objectionable content. Off hand, I do not remember anything that could not be given a G or at worst a slight PG rating, (but I could be wrong), as I was not interested in the film to see if it was OK for children, but for the drama and technical aspects.

    (PS. Funny, I did not see any slide rules, but maybe the work they were all doing required much greater precision than slide rules could provide)
  7. Jan 21, 2017 #6
    They were going out several decimal points. Slip-n-slides have a rough time with that.
  8. Jan 24, 2017 #7
    Just got back from watching it with my wife. Just astounding what these women overcame and really incredible stuff going on at NASA. Great movie!
  9. Jan 28, 2017 #8


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    Yeah, what he said.

    I went to Hampton High in Hampton Virginia at the time (1961) of part of the movie (Langley AFB is in Hampton) and worked for NASA in the early 60's (while in college) at the time of the rest of the movie. I used to bag groceries in Hampton for a couple of the astronauts wives and saw a couple of them infrequently.

    I mention all that only to follow by saying that I was very impressed by the accuracy of the scenes, the clothes, hairstyles, etc, and much more importantly the attitudes of white men to women in general and blacks in particular. I think the indignities those women suffered were understated and I agree w/ some of the earlier comments in this thread that the technical content was suspect (but that was irrelevant to 99% of the movie's audience so doesn't' matter and besides it was all kept fairly simple so the audience would recognize at least some of the concepts).

    It was a terrific movie. I was very happy to see at the end that all of the women (the real ones) lived to old age and eventually gained well deserved recognition in various ways.
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